Chhau: Between the Ordinary and the Extraordinary

Imagine the scent of rain seeping through the soil and the red earth, permeating the lush green valleys and resonating through every heart craving the unadulterated romance of the first shower! Now imagine a peacock darting through the freshly watered woods—it is a young boy, but in that moment, he is the peacock in a crude peacock costume. Today, he gets to do his first dance in front of his friends and relatives. Today, in a fascinating rite of passage, in the space of a few seconds, he metamorphoses from the ordinary into the extraordinary, if only for a while.

Whether the tantalising romance of minstrels travelling across the length and breadth of medieval Europe, or the compelling charm of artistes in ancient India entrancing audiences with their rustic song and dance, oral and performative traditions have made their place in the country’s social, cultural, historical and religious sensibilities since the very dawn of civilization. One of the most glorious and unique forms of performative art that integrates martial arts traditions with tribal and folk dance is Chhau. A crude yet inherently magnificent form of dance drama deeply enmeshed in the lives of the villagers who perform the dance themselves, usually during the spring festival, making it as essential to the fabric of the village society as religion itself. Yet it is not so much the stylised, often acrobatic gestures, nor the raw simplicity of the traditional musical accompaniments such as the dhol, dhamsa, chadchadi or the mohuri, but rather the intensely collective sense of exaltation that is the very essence of this particular tradition. As the narrative unfolds, a collective euphoria ensues and the viewer gets elevated in that moment beyond the ordinary realm of existence–the exquisite beauty of a dreary, mundane life transformed momentarily into the spectacular.

Despite its ambiguous origins that can be traced back to the Middle Ages, it is perhaps safe to state that Chhau was conceived as a war dance and that its current form is an amalgamation of different genres–from tribal war dance to folk theatre and mimetically representing episodes from Hindu mythology. Known today in its three distinct styles—the Seraikela Chhau of Bihar, the Purulia Chhau of West Bengal and the Mayurbhaj Chhau of Odisha—it is synonymous mainly with the vibrant costumes, the giant leaps and agile movements, and especially, perhaps most notably, the masks that the dancers wear evoking deities from the Hindu religion or characters from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, or simply to represent man and woman, birds and animals in their natural surroundings. Each of the three traditions mentioned, however, is believed to have evolved regionally due to cultural influences of the time, or perhaps as a result of royal patronage, borrowing from various dance and storytelling techniques, and eventually overlapping somewhat into each other. As the three forms stand today, the Mayurbhanj style of Chhau sees it dancers without the traditional mask, whereas the Saraikela and the Purulia styles are typically masked. In the latter, the masks are known for their elaborate paraphernalia while those in the former come with fewer trappings. What is particularly interesting is that the mask makers go back generations just as the art of Chhau itself, practised across generations especially by the men folk. These are amateur dancers who spend the rest of the year engaged in agriculture or hard physical labour. Yet, come harvest, these men would don the Chhau masks with their gaudy attires transporting themselves, as well as the audience, into a different spiritual plane. The sense of communal and spiritual solidarity is further fostered with the rhythmic beating of the drums as all the village folk gather in the open space where the performance takes place. Often held during night time, Chhau performances conjure a magical ambience for their spectators who travel from other villages or cities to be a part of this powerfully captivating experience.

Chhau, then, even more than a yearly rural festival, is a compelling social and ceremonial ritual for generations of families in the remote Eastern Indian villages where life is still largely rudimentary. As the dancer imbues himself in the complex movements of Chhau, he becomes not only a practitioner of this unique art form, but also the torch bearer both of Chhau dance, and for future generations of his family as more often than not his sons grow up with the knowledge that one day, not too far off, they would take over the mantle of the tradition. And once the mantle is passed on, it is not just the epic tales of good versus evil, or a niche art form that transitions performatively from one generation to another but also the coming of age of yet another generation as the boy transitions into a man the moment he straps on his costume.

Speaking of the boy-man metaphor, one must note that Chhau offers an interesting study in gender. In keeping with the age-old tradition of art being essentially a male domain, cross-dressing is a fundamental part of Chhau dance. From Shakesperean theatre to the rural yatras and the classical Indian dances like Kathakali, male actors and dancers have traditionally, and globally, donned female costumes, complete with wigs and coarse make up. Chhau, with its rustic roots, is no exception and for decades, men have posed as women or as female deities and entities in traditional Chhau dance. It made sense perhaps since war, after all, is even today essentially masculine and the Mayurbhanj style believes that Chhau drew from mock combat among foot-soldiers in the military camps or cantonment known locally as ‘chauni’. Moreover, the physically taxing tandava acts that the form involved made it difficult for women to make in-roads into the domain. Yet, in recent years, more and more women are training in the art of Chhau and joining troupes that are performing across borders in a bid to establish this traditional dance drama amidst a larger audience. Further, to stay relevant, Chhau artists thematically convey issues such as women’s status in society and in 2010, Chhau was inscribed by the UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. While ethnomusicology and folk art are slowly getting some global recognition today, it is perhaps time that more connoisseurs of art and the masses in general turned their attention to this fascinating dance form.